The coup d’état in seven African countries has been described as a sign of failed democracies in the affected countries.
Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger Republic, Chad, Sudan and Gabon have all been hit by military interregnum.
Observers have however, said that the antidote for military interventions anywhere was a purposeful leadership and not a fire brigade approach of rejigging military architecture as has been seen in some other two countries on the continent in the past few days.
On August 30, minutes after Gabon’s election commission announced that President Ali Ondimba Bongo had been elected to a third term, a group of senior Gabonese military officers from the elite presidential guard unit seized power and placed the president under arrest at his palace.
Mr. Ali Bongo’s family had been in power for fifty-six years.
While the election itself had been marred by reports of irregularities, the officers’ coup marks the latest in a long line of recent military takeovers across the African continent that have jeopardised regional stability and security.
Africa’s coup belt is enlarging rapidly. In just three years, soldiers have kicked out civilian leaders in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Niger and Gabon.
In April 2021, Chad’s army took power after President Idriss Deby was killed on the battlefield while visiting troops fighting rebels in the north.
In Niger, a barrage of international condemnation and economic sanctions has failed to crack the army’s determination to hold on to power, with Coup leaders bluntly refusing to engage with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) or even the United Nations.
The stakes, a recent Chatham House report noted, are high for West Africa, a region that has seen six coups in three years, as an emergent ‘putschist-populist’ politics threatens hard-won democratic progress.
With the development in Gabon, it is obvious that threats by West Africa’s regional body ECOWAS, are not hitting the right cord.
It signals the possibility of more coups in Africa.
Nigeria’s President and ECOWAS chairperson, Bola Tinubu fears that, “autocratic contagion” is spreading across Africa. He has urged that the protection of constitutional democratic governance on the continent remains a paramount priority for the sake of the economic prosperity of all Africans.
In response to a wave of coups across the Sahel, to Gabon’s north, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has imposed sanctions on various military juntas and even called for the deployment of a military force in Niger to enforce a return to constitutional order. “However,” Archibald Henry and Elizabeth Murray noted in a report for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), “the ECOWAS response to coups has been largely inconsistent, hampered notably by mixed messaging on the latest coup in Niger and ineffective sanctions, jeopardising the credibility of the organisation in the eyes of local populations.”
Mr. Tinubu who is leading ECOWAS’ efforts to reverse the coup in neighbouring Niger has been reluctant to authorise the use of force as approved by the ECOWAS heads of government to restore constitutional order in Niger.
“At a high point in 2017, constitutional civilian-led government prevailed across all 15 West African countries. Yet the region has now seen six military coups in less than three years, including two each in Mali and Burkina Faso. Decades of progress away from the authoritarian regimes of the past are in jeopardy,” Journalist Paul Melly noted in a Chatham House analysis.
With many citizens being crowded out of the ‘dividends of democracy,’ military leaders are exploiting disenchantment with democratic leadership amid deteriorating economic conditions.
Across the coup belt states, citizens have jubilantly trooped out in large numbers to welcome the putschists.
“The seeming support of the militaries taking over is an indirect support, it is not support for the military,” Leena Koni Hoffmann, an Africa programme associate fellow with London-based think tank Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.
“It is an opportunity to say that the government that has been overthrown is a government that does not represent our interest fully,” she said.
A 2021 Afrobarometer survey found that despite the efforts of some leaders to undermine democratic norms, Africans remain committed to democracy and democratic institutions.
They believe that the military should stay out of politics, that political parties should freely compete for power, that elections are an imperfect but essential tool for choosing their leaders, and that it is time for the old men who cling to power to step aside.
But their political reality falls short of these expectations. The perception of widespread and worsening corruption is particularly corrosive, leaving people increasingly dissatisfied with political systems that are yet to deliver on their aspirations to live in societies that are democratically and accountably governed. And although citizens find myriad ways to voice their concerns, they feel that their governments are not listening.
“Simply put,” a 2022 Chatham House report posited, “Africans want more democratic and accountable governance than they think they are getting.”
The problem is that they are not getting it and the military is waiting in the wings to mine the citizens’ discontent.
Mr. Tinubu’s fear of a blooming contagious autocracy across the continent is therefore, not misplaced.
The military in Gabon claimed electoral misconduct as one of the reasons for the coup in a season where elections are still being disputed across the continent.
Nigeria’s February election is also being vigorously contested in court by opposition parties who say Mr. Tinubu and his party stole victory from them.
In August, Nigeria’s defence chiefs were forced to issue a strong statement rejecting a report in circulation is calling on the military to interfere in the democracy of the country.
“We wish to state unequivocally that the military is happy and better under democracy and will not get involved in any act to sabotage the hard-earned democracy in our country,” the Acting Director, Defence Information, Brig.-Gen. Tukur Gusau said.
There has been alleged panic among African leaders following the military coup that happened in Gabon. The response of the rulers in Rwanda and Cameroon, showed a recognition of the potential domino effect from the spate of coups in west and central Africa.
In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame retired hundreds of soldiers, coinciding with the advancement of young soldiers within the nation’s security framework. New generals have also been appointed to lead army divisions situated across the country.
The Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) released a statement disclosing Kagame’s approval of the retirement of twelve generals, eighty-three senior officers, and six junior officers. Additionally, eighty-six senior non-commissioned officers will be retired. About 678 soldiers retired as their contracts concluded, with 160 others medically discharged.
While he has been president of Rwanda since 2000, Kagame has been de facto leader since 1994. In 2015, Rwanda’s constitution was changed to allow Kagame to remain president until 2034
Cameroon’s 90-year-old President, Paul Biya, who has ruled his country for more than 40 years and who spends most of his time in Switzerland, enacted fresh appointments within the Defence Ministry’s central administrative unit, as outlined in a decree shared on social media.
Among the posts reshuffled were the delegate to the presidency in charge of defence, air force staff, navy, and the police, as announced on his X social media platform.
According to an Abuja-based war historian and lawyer, “A good chunk of Cameroun’s Army, Special Forces Battalion and Presidential Guard are…first and second-generation Nigerians, mostly from the South East, South-South and North East States…No idea what impact that has on Biya’s perception of his personal safety. We are now officially living in very interesting times”.
Mr. Biya would be hoping on France to keep him in power as they have done all these years. France failed to keep Niger’s ousted leader, Mohammed Bazoum in office when his presidential guards struck.
A strong leitmotif running through the coups that have taken place in the continent in recent times, has been role of elite presidential guard units in facilitating the coups. Paid, trained, and treated better than the regular military, the presidential guards have been described as a “parallel army” that operates above the law.
In Burkina Faso, Niger, Gabon, presidential guards’ officers have led the seizure of power from the men they swore to protect.
To minimise the incidents of coups in West Africa, the Chief of the Liberian Armed Forces, Major General Charles Johnson III, warned of the urgent need to curtail the powers of presidential guards.
The military commander who was reacting to the coup in Niger Republic and growing military seizure of power in parts of West Africa, said ECOWAS member states must be mindful of how much control the military has, and if not abolished, the Presidential Guards of the Commander in Chief must not be allowed to wield so much power.
“When you have this political interference into the command and control of the military, like having a Presidential guard, the Commander in Chief selecting somebody to head it instead of allowing the Chief of Defence Staff to go through that process or having somebody to control, then it becomes a problem because the CDS has no control over the unit since he takes direct control from the Commander in Chief,” he explained.
“So, if you look at what is happening even in Niger, it is the Presidential Guards. And look at our history in Liberia, we have seen the issue of Presidential Guards being misused. The Peace and Reconciliation report of 2008 says that, the Special Anti-Terrorism Unit was involved in a lot of alleged atrocities. That is why I emphasised that we need to be mindful and allow the military to have this control”.
Nigeria’s presidents have since 1968 appointed commanders for the elite brigade of guards. In June, president Tinubu appointed a new Brigade of Guards Commander to lead his protection force. He further went ahead to appoint battalion commanders and other military officers for the elite unit.
To put an end to the raging storm of coups threatening the continent’s political landscape, Africa’s leaders need to be bold and go beyong narrow interests and corrupt access to power in order to gain legitimacy and trust of their citizens.
Read also: Why coup ‘fever’ is spreading across Africa
“On a cursory look, the Ali Bongo overthrow plays into the succession of coups that we have seen in the last couple of years across Africa,” Attorney, Deji Olutoye noted.
“I think the clearest signal is that there is a notice now being served on democracies that have failed to properly launch across the continent. We expect incipient democracies to totter at first, but then to mature as time goes on. What we have seen in the last decade is that the wave of democratisation that swept through Africa from the early 90s have largely produced regimes that did not go beyond the box-ticking of election cycles.
“There is a crying legitimacy gap, not just in the quality of elections, but in the outcome–the so-called democracy dividends–for the populace. This has manifested in diverse ways across the continent. In places like Gabon, Togo Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, it has manifested in effete sight-tight regimes and dynasties.
“The clearest signal from Gabon is to these other sight-tight regimes, including in neighbouring Cameroon where President Biya’s regime is deepening separatist disaffection. For other parts of the continent where election cycles are deteriorating, no matter how we choose to see or not see what has happened in Gabon, Ali Bongo’s overthrow is also a notice.
“It is also a time to ponder for African leaders. It is easy to form agreements against coup d’état, but what is the consequence of sabotage of the constitutional process by ostensibly democratic governments? How do we measure and give due regard to legitimacy? African leaders will now have to revise the early-2000s peer-review mechanism and now accentuate basic quality of the democratic process and constitutional norms within the metrics,” he added.